Rupert Everett: Divorce records

Rupert Everett visited the Parliamentary Archives for the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010.

He found that Ann Vane, one of his ancestors on his mother's side, had been divorced by Act of Parliament in 1757. The picture shows Rupert with the handwritten parchment Original Act, 'An Act to dissolve the Marriage of the Honourable Charles Hope Weir Esquire, with Ann Vane his now Wife, and to enable him to marry again; and for other Purposes therein mentioned,' in the Parliamentary Archives searchroom.

Rupert also read the account of the committee proceedings in the House of Lords Journal. Although the footage wasn't broadcast in the final programme, Rupert's experience is a good example of how people might find an ancestor who was divorced among Parliamentary records.

Was your ancestor divorced by Act of Parliament?

Divorce by legal process only became possible after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.  Before that date people could get a legal separation called a mensa et thoro from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery could be obtained from a civil court - this was called a suit for criminal conversation. The National Archives has published useful guidance on tracing divorce records before 1858  and after 1858.

The only way to get a full divorce which allowed re-marriage was to obtain an Act of Parliament by proving adultery or life-threatening cruelty.   Parliamentary proceedings were expensive and this could only be undertaken by the rich. The Parliamentary Archives holds the records of divorces obtained by Act of Parliament between 1670 and 1857, including the initial petitions to the House of Lords, Acts, Bills, amendments and copies of earlier proceedings in the ecclesiastical courts.  Divorce Bills were usually considered by a committee of the whole House of Lords, and evidence was given there by witnesses and printed in the House of Lords Journal.  The evidence can give large amounts of personal information about the people involved, as maids, butlers and coachmen were called alongside family members to testify about the state of the marriage.

If you think your ancestor may have been divorced by Act of Parliament, search the Parliamentary Archives catalogue  for their surname and the date or date range in which you think it happened. If you find an Act or any other material, you can contact us to make an appointment to see it, or order copies. 

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